The distinction between myth and what we occidentals describe as 'reality' does not exist in India where even the passage of time is illusory. A religious festival merges myth and sacred time with the ordinary temporal flow.
          Arunachala was worshipped long before the Vedic culture penetrated the southern peninsular millennia ago. In the south Lord Siva was the notion of most awesome significance and Arunachala became the embodiment of Lord Siva. [Kailash Mountain of Tibet is his abode where he meditates, but Arunachala Mountain is The Lord Himself]. Lord Siva showed himself as the eternal principal in the form of an endless column of Light, the light of consciousness through which realization is possible. Invisible it is to mortal eyes, it is called the Mahamangalam, the Great Auspiciousness. Arunachala Mountain is an icon or indicator of this presence of power.
          It was in comparatively recent history that the Vedic Divine personalities such as Lord Siva evolved on the subcontinent; they up-staged the primeval pantheon of elemental divinities worshipped since time before mind: Fire, Water, Space, Air and Earth. Sacred places associated with these most ancient divinities all lie in the South; Arunachala is The Fire Place.
          Agni is the ancient deity commonly known as the god of fire. This element has three forms and the form significant for Arunachala is the most subtle form of light. Arunachala is an invisible column of light signifying consciousness. In case you do not know I should mention that Human consciousness veils our original identity and paradoxically it is the means by which we can recognize our original identity - or true nature, prior to consciousness. This realization confers freedom from the bondage of embodiment. The light of the Deepam flame on Arunachala is lit according to the lunar calendar exactly as the moon rises into Karthigai month so it is called Karthigai Deepam; it reminds us of our inevitable enlightenment.
          The original myth associated with Arunachala Deepam is this: Aeons ago the gods Brahma and Vishnu challenged one another; each claimed to be able to reach the end of the universe. Brahma (the Creator) headed up into the sky in the form of a swan, and Vishnu (the Preserver) headed down into the earth as a boar. Neither managed anything much, except attempts at trickery – both cunningly claimed to have found the end. The Destroyer of Ignorance - Lord Siva - pronounced the justice of this situation: that no embodied being has precedence over any other; that only what is prior to consciousness is real. What is real is quality-less. It is eternal, univocal throughout all dimensions of all worlds.
         
Deepam Festival lasts fourteen days. The Big Temple displays its treasures every night of the first nine days in processions around the circuit of streets in town. Millions of pilgrims come, perhaps two million sometimes, perhaps more; they camp out in the temple complex and fill every available hut, home, shop, guesthouse, ashram, room, corner, balcony, corridor, niche, stone bench, and nook under trees and rocks. They all walk around the hill; some many times because it is exceedingly auspicious to do so. Lord Siva may very likely grant a pilgrim's wishes.
          Many years ago when my daughter was small, the old infirm lady who lived with us - an elderly Brahmana woman of ninety-nine-odd years - used to bundle her pots and pans, condiments, clean white saris – she'd bundle them all up in a cloth and scoot off by rickshaw into town for Deepam every year. She had an age-old arrangement with a family in the main street, she used to camp on their verandah for the ten days, staying awake at night to worship the gods as they came past. The divinities would no doubt reward her for all her trouble.
          Although we are tempted to conjecture that the motivation to partake of this exceeding auspiciousness arises from other-worldly concerns lured by the possibility of relinquishment from the cycle of birth and death, this is not entirely true. For the Hindu it is considered monumentally difficult for an individual to achieve the freedom from attachment to this world that is essential for absolute freedom. It is love of this world that fires the hearts of the devotees; the possible fulfillment of desires sustains arduous pilgrimages. The number of pilgrims walking around Arunachala has increased so much during the past ten years that we now have a mini-Deepam every single month. A famous film star's pronouncement that Arunachala grants wishes at full moon as well as at Deepam is what started it all off. Since then, the entire town has to be frozen of incoming traffic for the duration of the moon's radiant fullness and thousands of extra buses are scheduled. The ostensibly other-worldly Deepam festival is actually a tremendous affirmation of confidence in life on Earth.
          Hawkers come with their wares: food in particular and pictures of gods, film stars and politicians. Hawkers bring spiritual books, protective talismans, plastic toys and bunches of grapes, things to hang on your rear vision mirror and stand on your TV, wind chimes, socks, belts, warmers for heads, underpants, bangles, molded plastic divinities, fruit trees, pillows and blankets, jewels, hair clips, watches, fruit trees and motor bikes – to name a few conspicuous items. The religious festival becomes a vast marketplace. The Holy Hill is garlanded with opportunities.
          Beggars come by the busload with their leprous legs and stumpy arms and their begging bowls; some have little vehicles. Sadhus come in orange - the mendicant's uniform. Businessmen also come. Families come with plastic carry bags of clean clothes and blankets. With their shaven scalps smeared with turmeric paste; they wash their saris, dhotis and shirts in the tanks beside the hill-round road route and walk with one wet sari end tied modestly about their body - the other held by a family member up ahead, the cloth streaming out to dry in the breeze. Skinny people with big feet and wide eyes: these are the true-blue pilgrims who camp on the flagstones of temples and mandapams. Modern middle class families stay in expensive hotels. Groups come with musical accessories and flower garlands, voices joining footsteps. The Hill becomes garlanded in humans, encouraged by the voices of the hawkers and bucket loudspeakers blaring from the frequent stands selling tapes of devotional music.
          A recent upsurge in progress has resulted in the construction of several sheds along the way, in which pilgrims can rest and watch TV. A special cable was laid to provide video images of the festival happenings including much film of pilgrims walking around the Holy Hill so that resting pilgrims can even see themselves perhaps, by courtesy of our recent technological achievements.
          It is widely believed that the provision of Free Food at Deepam is rewarded by the Lord more than any other provision of Free Food! Down at little shrine area in the only remaining virgin forest adjacent to my house, on one side of the road every year we have The Big Temple servants feeding ten thousand persons a day, and on the other side another group feeding another ten thousand. Crowd Control Barriers sprout and the vast distribution of free food manifests itself all along the Hill Round Route.
          We wandered down to the little shrine area around midday on the seventh day of last year's festival - the day of The Lighting. The Free Food queue in the crowd control barrier on one side of the road extended back for more than a kilometre, forming a static block against the jabbering stream of thousands not interested in free food just then. The field behind where the forest watchman lives was full of onionskins, vegetable peelings, big pots being filled with food and big pots on fires. Full steaming-hot big pots were carried on palanquins by strong men across to the awning on the roadside where more big pots of hot food were lined up and many men were dishing spicy rice onto leaf plates for the long barricaded queue of hungry Tamilians extending out of sight.
          We ate our free food on a bench segregated from the crowd by thorns, watching a big fight between temple bouncers and persons trying to eat their food too near to the distribution spot, thereby creating untold congestion in a greatly congested situation. There was no alternative since there was nowhere to go to eat, because the sea of human beings takes up every available space. Discarded leaf plates smeared with spicy rice covered the road and particularly the shoulders of the road, where one had to wade through a great mess in order to move. Huge religious festivals have an agonizingly sordid side. But the ecstasy is something else.
          Three days before the lighting of the Light, it is Big Car Day. There are several Big Cars, huge wooden carts carved with fabulous mythological figures telling all the stories, with the biggest wheels in the world; the biggest car dwarfs all the buildings in town except the giant temple towers. It is called The Big Car.
          Our temple elephant leads the procession. Several elephants come for Deepam, most of them beggars; they walk from wherever they come from. On this day parents or family members also carry their babies around the procession route. They string a sari on a sugar-cane pole which they support on their shoulders making a hammock for the child. The babies carried are ones whose parents asked Arunachala to bless them with so they are carried in thanksgiving.
          The splendid bronze figures of Annamalai and Unnamalai - male and female personifications of Arunachala, are heavily garlanded and bejeweled, seated up on The Biggest Car; the towering edifice is covered with long strips of embroidered cloth and gigantic flower garlands. There are several big cars pulled before and after The Big Car; there's a women-only one carrying Abhithakuchalambal, and there's also a kids' car, which trails flamboyantly at the end. It's all stupendously awesome.
          Years ago we used to walk in to watch the Big Car come up the incline of one main street around midday; for years and years and years, we'd all have lunch in ashram and then everyone would make their way around to the east face of the hill to meet the gods coming up Thiruvoodal street. But now there are so many pilgrims that the schedule has extended interminably. Inauspicious times of the day intervene so the proceedings stop until the bad hour has passed, and there's also the time when suddenly everyone goes home for lunch.
          That year it was evening before the Big Car reached that street. My daughter's two children - Hari and Ani - were very young so we secured a protected view from the balcony of a cloth shop half way down the incline, long before the towering, tottering, embroidered, garlanded Big Car - with it's flouncing umbrella on the very top, appeared above the roofs of the shops and maneuvered itself into position for the strenuous haul up towards Arunachala. Upon the up-roaring signal of its visibility from the crowd, Hari dropped his pile of coat-hangers and rushed to be held up over the balcony. His eyes popped, his ears flapped. Even though we'd seen it before, nothing can prepare us for the majesty of its annual sight. Below us the street was a sea of heads; all balconies and rooftops up and down the street full of faces and now that the Big Car appeared, bodies behind us pressed forward, pushing us onto the balcony rails festooned with dubious electrical fairy lights. It's quite exciting.

Since the divinities are coming, dedicated persons don't wear shoes. This year we noticed one Policewoman wearing socks to protect her dainty feet from the yucky street. About five thousand pilgrims pull the cart around the temple circuit-route, ladies on one side and gents on the other. When the car stops, big chocks of heavy wood are wedged underneath the enormous wheels while the pullers take a rest and offerings are made to their majesties the gods. When ready to start again, young men with enthusiasm climb up onto the chocks with poles to steady themselves, and on signal they jump up and down on the slanted chocks until their force pushes the wheels forward, giving momentum for the pullers to haul the cart further up the street.
          Looking down into the crowd below as the cart passed beneath us, we were treated to a seething mass of human energy - drums beating in time to muscles, bystanders shouting encouragement, enormous wheels slowly turning, the carving on the cart creaking, embroidery panels blowing in the wind, garlands wavering about, lucky little boys sitting up high lowering cloth carry bags on strings for people to send up coconuts and flowers, the Brahmin priests looking down impassively.
          It's the Brahmins particularly – the extravagant courtly costumes, the imperious faces staring down – that convey the true sense of the gods as majesties: as the most important personages in our world, out on a tour of the town, to be saluted by their adoring subjects. And a very large number of their adoring subjects are sweating, straining at the edge in the effort required to pull them. The Big Car teeters its way uphill until the momentum runs out. The chocks are wedged in again. Everyone breathes. It will take about ten hours to circumnavigate the temple.”
          Many are the occasions of inspiration throughout this festival but the outstanding event is the lighting of the Light.
          This year my dog and I walked with our friend around to the temple dedicated to the feminine aspect Unnamalai lying on the west of Arunachala where the Shakthi - the female power point of the hill - peeks up from behind the main protuberance. This peeking point is a perfect little inverted vulva; it even has a little clitoris sticking up, perhaps it's a bush. Unnamalai Temple has a gorgeous stone-pillared mandapam, or hall, now newly painted and overflowing with pilgrims. And across the road, on the hillside, spreads a newly cleared Restawhile Park with a modern iron umbrella above cement benches. The Restawhile Park is a perfect viewing place for the lighting of the Light.
          Underfoot is conspicuously sordid by this time in the Festival so our walk to the temple had meandered around piles of garbage. We passed a balloon man with his happy crowd of prospective little buyers and the nice clean boys selling 'Healthy Milk Drinks' next to the stacked plastic bottles of unhealthy pop shop. Outside Unnamalai a stall selling cheap audiotapes was blotting out existential consciousness entirely yet the ceremonies in the temple were going strong - assisted by other loudspeakers, and the pilgrims were slapping their cheeks and bowing down in obeisance the way they do. None of the local dogs were visible; we noticed this, my dog and I.
          We sat for awhile under a tree near to the shrine next to dear sadhu Ramana in yellow, who spends all his livelong days sweeping the hill round roadway; he had merged with the tree and didn't look too enthusiastic. Across from me on the hillside sat the irascible sadhu, for once amused, and behind him rose a crassly painted modern iron umbrella sheltering the concrete benches which provide sadhus with such an excellent place to dry their cloths, two sadhus were folding dry orange dhotis diligently and behind them the cheeky little Shakthi and the great peak loomed resplendent in the distance.
          As dusk approached we sat down near to the sadhu to wait for the flame to appear. We could smell human shit there; we watched pilgrims daintily picking their barefoot way across the weeds hoping to avoid any mess before sitting down nicely cross-legged to stare up at the mountaintop. Gradually the Restawhile Park's uncontaminated spaces filled with quiet orderly pilgrims. We had to wait about an hour, and we foreigners couldn't help but notice that nobody was eating, smoking, talking or drinking. Some had lit incense. For thirty kilometers radius surrounding Arunachala at this time several million people were waiting suspenseful, staring up to the top of the hill, as they always do.
          Up on the narrow rocky top of the mountain stands a gigantic copper lamp laboriously carried up that morning by a team of old blokes in loincloths who are traditionally honored with this task. The east face is swarming with humans on their way up with clay pots of ghee to replenish this lamp; a colorful pilgrim snake weaves the traditional path and more adventurous persons scramble up in other directions. The almost top plateau becomes a mini-market, even bangles and balloons can be bought up there, and many will spend the night beside their wares. The very top is standing-room-only of course – for men only; bare feet negotiate the brittle remains of broken clay pots softened by the sticky ghee surface of centuries. Everyone takes up flowers and incense to enhance the honour of presence.
          A special ceremony in the Big Temple in town early this morning accompanied a flame-seed from the inner sanctum out into the enormous flagstone courtyard where it first lights another flame-seed set waiting beside another huge copper lamp, before traveling carefully up the path on the east face to the top. There it will be sheltered by the priests in breathless expectation of the rise of the auspicious full moon. Any parts of this ritual which are now left out or compromised by human weakness are just the effects of the degeneration of the times.
          The moment our Celestial Orb appears on the eastern horizon the giant lamp on the very top will be lit and the moment the little flame on top appears, the priests in the Big Temple will light the big lamp in the vast courtyard so packed with humans now chanting “Om Namo Sivaya” that if the festival is pelting rain - as it sometimes is - it is surprising how the heat of so many bodies keeps them somewhat warm and dry. The temple elephant also waits with the crowd; this is part of her job. She loves festivals.



The appearance of the light on the top will also signal orchestration of thousands and thousands of small Deepam lamps set waiting outside huts and households as far as eye can see. This is the Festival of Light, remember? Many household lamps are mountains of sweet rice-flour, with ghee to carry the flame, as Pati used to make for us during those years between the infirmity preventing her movement into the main street of town for Deepam, and her death. After the flame has consumed the ghee, family members share the tasty mountain in tribute to Arunachala. Even dogs get some sometimes.
          At the cattle market on the south side of the mountain, thousands of immaculate cattle face the mountain, bells tinkling to the chewing of their cud and the cattlemen squat together in huddles - blankets across scrawny shoulders, by the little bonfires that contribute their own rustic gesture of affection for this wondrous world. Light is eternal.
          Very frequently it rains at Deepam. Most of the year it doesn't rain but at Deepam, it does. This year it is not raining and we are waiting in the Restawhile park on the western side of the mountain; Bibidog has her front paws crossed, she's panting. Samadhi and I have stopped refraining from sniffing; we are suffocated with Presence. The silence deepens towards the golden glow heralding the auspicious first appearance of the flame. Our moon is on its way.
          A soft golden glow stirs our suspense. Then an irrepressible upsurge of human aspiration arises, it's palpable: everyone stands up. Loving palms are brought together above uplifted heads while millions and millions of voices carry the stupendous sound “Ahrhoroghorah!” up to the appearance of a tiny little flame.

Ahrhorghorah! I don't need to tell you what that means!

[Apeetha Arunagiri]